Note Greg’s CTA map necktie. See more photos from the event.
Tuesday night I dropped by a meet-up for Active Transportation Alliance’s Riders for Better Transit campaign featuring Chicago writers Greg Borzo and Tracy Swartz at the Blue Frog, 22 E. Hubbard. Greg wrote the book The Chicago “L,” a very thorough history with lots of great archival photos. Greg also wrote the book Where to Bike Chicago, and contributed a chapter to the new anthology On Bicycles by Momentum magazine cofounder Amy Walker. Tracy writes the CTA-centric weekly column “Going Public” for RedEye. Since April 2009 she’s been riding a different CTA bus line every week, and in December she completed the last route, an impressive accomplishment.
Both transit writers gave short presentations at the event. Greg noted that this year is the 120th anniversary of the El system. “I think you’ll enjoy riding the El lines more than the buses,” he said to Tracy. “It will be a lot faster.” He went on to describe the El as a social space, similar to a public park, and reminisced about looking up from the book he was reading on the train one day to see another rider with the same title, sparking a nice conversation.
Photo of two CTA trains passing at North/Clybourn by Mike Miley
Greg gives tours of the El system for the Chicago History Museum and other organizations. “I’m always surprised how many people from other countries come on these tours, from Germany and Japan and other places,” he said. “Part of their reason for coming to Chicago is to ride the El, because the El is a movie star.” Greg, who’s also a film aficionado, then showed a clip from the movie Just Visiting, about a Medieval French knight who gets transported to modern-day Chicago, in which the knight boards a train on horseback at the Harold Washington Library stop and his horse munches on a commuter’s popcorn. “A high-ranking CTA official asked me not to show this clip,” Greg said. “Not because of the horse but because it shows people eating on the CTA.
“I’ve been on the El before but I’ve never met an El-ebrity,” Swartz responded. She told the audience that she moved to town from Florida a few years ago and started riding bus lines as a way to get to know the city better. “Usually when I’d get to the end of the line the bus driver would ask, ‘Little girl, are you lost?’ Trust me, I’ve seen a lot of the city.”
Afterwards I sat down with Tracy for a quick interview:
What was the most interesting bus line you rode?
It’s funny because being in different parts of the city there were some buses I stood out on more than others. One of the lines that stood out for me was the X98 Avon Express. It starts at the Irving Park Blue Line and you line up in anticipation of this bus. There’s no sign to denote the bus stop. And we’re waiting in line for the bus and people are saying, you’re on the wrong bus – don’t get on this bus. So, I say, no, I’m OK, I need to be on this bus. So I’m waiting in line and I get on the bus, and people are like, hey, you need to get off this bus. And I say, no, I need to be here.
So finally we get to our destination. It’s the Avon plant in Morton Grove. Everybody gets off the bus but me, because everybody works there but me. So the people on the bus totally knew that I was not a worker there. This was a bus that only is there for workers. And I ended up sitting on the bus with the driver waiting for the next shift to come so we could go back to the Irving Park Blue Line.
If someone wanted to ride one CTA line that would show them beautiful scenery or memorable sights, what would you recommend?
The one I like to recommend is the #70 Division. I feel it’s the best slice of life for Chicago. It starts in the Gold Coast at the Newberry Library. You go through the Old Town area, Goose Island, and Wicker Park, and then you through Humboldt Park and it’s beautiful. And then you go into Austin. So you start out in the Gold Coast and end up in Austin and you get to see so much of the city in between. That for me is really Chicago’s slice-of-life bus route.
Photo of a bus stop flag by Eric Pancer
Is there a bus line that you would single out as the bus from hell, where you just had a terrible time?
I rode some non-traditional buses, like the Wrigley Field Express, the #19 out to the United Center, and the #128 Soldier Field Express. Normally when I go to Soldier Field I get off the El at Roosevelt and walk over there. Well the Soldier Field bus picks you up at Metra and it’s supposed to take you right to Soldier Field, and it was terrible. We sat in traffic, people were trying to bail off the bus because you could walk faster. It’s because there are no priority lanes for buses versus the regular Lake Shore Drive traffic trying to go to Soldier Field. So the game is about to start and we’re sitting there marooned. That was the one bus that truly felt like a waste of time.
Were there any situations where you were worried for your safety?
Sometimes college students were doing projects so they would shadow me, but I never asked for friends to accompany me. The exception was the N5 South Shore Night Bus, which has no daytime counterparts. It runs from like 11:30 at night to 4:30 in the morning. So I asked a friend of mine to ride with me, and it was funny because there were no problems but you always find some eccentric people on the bus at that hour. There was a guy wearing this leather jacket made of fake money, and then another guy reading the Home Alone II screenplay. So it was nice to have a companion that time but almost every other bus was just me.
Photo of a CTA #60/Blue Island bus in Pilsen by James T.
After riding all the bus lines, do you have any ideas for improving CTA service?
If I learned anything it’s the need for express bus services. This year they’re working on the bus rapid transit pilot to get from one side of the city to another quicker. While I was doing this project they got rid of some express buses in the service cuts of 2010. And you don’t realize how much express buses are needed until you actually ride the Ashland bus or the Western bus every single stop. That’s the big takeaway. If you’re not going to build out the rail system then you need to move people quickly on buses where they need to go.
Anything else you’d like to tell me about your experience?
I had a good time doing it but I’m glad it’s over.